this is a guest post written by Lena Chervin
On January 22nd, 2015, Sarah Sullivan, a prominent teacher and organizer in the Baltimore lindy hop community published a blog post detailing her experience of being sexually assaulted by Steven Mitchell, a popular international lindy hop instructor.
Her post has sparked outrage and debate throughout the lindy community worldwide. Within days of posting, over 350 comments were made on the blog; at least four other women reported their own stories of sexual assault at the hands of Steven Mitchell; an online national panel of swing dance leaders met to discuss safer spaces; a Safe Dance Spaces Tumblr was created; and Steven Mitchell was dis-invited from teaching at several events.
Perhaps most importantly, there has been an explosion of conversation online, both in forum groups such as Safety Dance, and on individuals’ private Facebook walls.
As our community works through all this, it is vital that we recognize the role that power and social capital play in sexual violence within our communities. The vast majority of people who hold power in our communities contribute nothing but positivity. However, a select few misuse their power-whether intentionally or not. Perhaps if we recognize and understand how power is used as a tool for abuse, we can prevent sexual violence by simply taking that tool away from the people misusing it.
Power and social capital are part of what has enabled Sarah Sullivan to bring her story forward in the first place. In her own post, she says:
The risk [of speaking publicly], while it feels high, is not as high for me as it is for a lot of people…and I feel like I have a responsibility to speak up… I am hoping to forge a path for other people to speak up, especially people whose position in the community is not as secure as mine.
Indeed, Sarah Sullivan currently holds a secure, powerful position in the community. It is important to remember, however, that at the time of the assault she did not. She was 18 years old, and managed to travel for dance by babysitting instructor’s children at weekend events. Steven Mitchell on the other hand, was already an internationally renowned instructor. He used his position of power to “groom” Sarah for abuse—that is, he developed a relationship of trust and isolation with her, in order to manipulate her in the future. This started when she was only 16 years old.
Many people are still processing this information. For some, this may be the first time they are faced with the reality of sexual assault in our community. But for many of us, this is just a high profile case of a phenomenon we know all too well. These are discussions we have already had. And as the community brainstorms policies for making spaces safer, I feel like I am hearing the same bullet list of actionable ideas others have been advocating for years: have a code of conduct; call others out on bad behavior; empower people to say “no”; teach affirmative consent; and of course, work to fight rape culture.
All of these are fantastic ideas! And I have seen them have significant positive impact on the local scenes that enact them. However, they do not get to the heart of the problem: how misuse of power enables sexual violence.
What is it that makes Sarah Sullivan’s case so different from the countless other incidences of sexual assault in our community?
Why is it that Sarah Sullivan’s experience incites worldwide discussion and debate, while the experiences of other survivors do not?
Aside from the incredibly courageous act of publishing a detailed, plain-as-day account of her experience, the major difference I see between Sarah Sullivan and other survivors is that Sarah is an organizer, a teacher, and an invaluable part of the local Baltimore scene. She provides significant resources to the community, in the form of instruction, running venues, and generally being an awesome dancer (being an “awesome dancer” is a form of providing resources—when an awesome dancer shows up at a venue, they automatically raise the value of attending that venue by making it more fun to be there). Sarah is also well-liked by and well-connected with other instructors, organizers, volunteers, and key dancers in the community.
In short, Sarah Sullivan holds a large amount of social capital and power relative to others in our community.
I do not at all intend to diminish or belittle the emotional outpour of support that Sarah (and other survivors) have received in the past few days. I know that the positive response is genuine, raw, and heartfelt. It is natural to show support for someone who we all know and love. We also need to show support for people we are less invested in.
The uncharacteristically high level of support we are showing for Sarah stems at least partially from her uncharacteristically high level of power and social capital in the community. I point this out, not to invalidate her experience, but to highlight power differentials as a key ingredient in the recipe for sexual abuse.
Usually it is the abuser who holds higher social capital or power than their target. Indeed, those who display a pattern of predatory behavior in our communities rely on power differentials such as age, authority, or popularity to be able to continue their behavior without consequence. These power differentials allow the aggressor not only to coerce their target into complicity or silence, but often to avoid repercussions, should the survivor choose to speak up.
Our brains are hardwired to have difficulty processing the idea that a teacher, organizer, or anyone we care for could commit such a vile abuse of power. Doing so would force us to question whether such a person should be in power to begin with! This is a hard pill to swallow if we collectively rely on such a person for community services like renting out venues, teaching classes, scheduling DJs, working the door, driving carpools, throwing awesome house parties, or just giving those fantastic dances that everyone wants to keep having. It would be risky to even publicly chastise such a person, for fear of losing them and the resources they provide.
On the other hand, it is easy to dismiss a story of sexual assault if the survivor holds little social capital or power in the scene. This is because dismissing them comes without the loss of resources.
This is the story I am personally familiar with. All of the people I know who have brought their stories of sexual assault to the organizers were essentially ignored. As a result, at least half of them left the community feeling utterly disenfranchised.
When someone comes forward with their experience of sexual assault, and we, as a community, choose not to act, what we really saying, is this:
You are not valuable to the community, but your aggressor is.
If we valued all members in our community the way we value Sarah Sullivan, their stories of assault would be met with action. When we act, we not only show concern for the survivor’s emotional well-being, we also help protect everyone in the scene from future transgressions.
So how do we act? How do we create a stronger, safer, braver dance community? I don’t have all the answers. But I believe that, until we acknowledge the role of social capital and power, our efforts to build safe spaces are going to be misguided and inefficient. If countless survivors already feel safe enough to come forward with their stories, yet nothing happens, then our codes of conduct and so-called “safer spaces” policies are not enough.
We must recognize that the root of sexual assault is abuse of power, and treat the disease directly. I am not saying that all people in power are bad. I am saying that some people in power abuse it, and we must take power away from those select few.
While what I am advocating may sound radical, it is actually less extreme than the practice of “banning” people accused of sexual violence. Vilification of abusers is part of the reason we avoid confronting cases of assault in the first place. We are instinctively hesitant to accept reports of sexual assault, because if we do, we know we must act. And if we act, we think that action must be to ban the person entirely.
The benefits of revoking power as an alternative to banning (or at least as a first resort) are numerous:
- Taking away power can be temporary: we can remove a potential threat to the community while investigations are underway, and restore power if accusations are determined to be unfounded. (If accusations are determined to be founded, revocation of power could be made permanent.) Likewise, power may possibly be restored after a successful “restorative justice” process, the practice currently being discussed by the Alt. Blues Recess community.
- Taking away power can be incremental: there are different levels of power that can be taken away, depending on the circumstances.
- Taking away power can be non-confrontational: as in, simply not inviting someone back to teach.
- Finally, taking away power brings less backlash against the survivor.
But the main point is: taking away power separates the person from the behavior. We specifically reject the tools used to commit the behavior, rather than the entire person. Bad behavior means we take action, regardless of how much we like someone.
It is not that complicated. If we want to stop sexual violence, lets take away power- the tool used to commit sexual violence in the first place.
The practice of taking away power will differ from case to case, but it will always involve 1) identifying the form of power being utilized, and 2) methodically revoking it.
If power comes in the form of authority – such as being a teacher, DJ, organizer, crucial volunteer, etc.- then power could be taken away by removing the person from that position. (This is easier said than done, I know. If a person accused of sexual assault is the one-and-only organizer, revoking power may mean stepping up, starting your own venue, and competing for business. That’s time, money, skills, and connections. Community members may need to band together in order to get a new venue running. Scenes with more than one venue may need to organize a boycott against the venue with problematic leadership, demanding that an abusive organizer be removed from power.)
If power comes in the form of providing physical resources to the community like carpools, house parties, sound systems, etc.- then power could be taken away by letting the person know their resources are no longer welcomed.
If power comes in the form of special privileges – for example, being on a venue’s guest list- then power can be taken away by revoking those special privileges.
If power comes in the form of being an awesome, popular dancer…well we can’t really “take that away” from someone…
…But we can still identify mechanisms of abuse they are using, and actively intervene. This is where community education on safer spaces policies comes in. For example, if you notice a veteran dancer isolating a new, inexperienced dancer (i.e. dancing with them only, and preventing them from meeting others), go disrupt it! Ask the newbie to dance! While you are at it, explain that they should be dancing with several people. Warn them about isolation and grooming. The investment is low, but the positive impact can be significant.
There is no way I could possibly cover every single type of abuse of power in a single blog post. All I hope to do is call local communities to action. Sit down and have this conversation in your community. If there is someone in your scene who is all-but-proven to have committed acts of sexual violence, examine the power structures they utilize, and brainstorm ways to revoke them.
We may even want to intentionally design our communities with greater distribution of power, proactively. Then, if someone is found to be misusing their power, they can be demoted without massive, unbearable community sacrifice. It is far easier to take power away from an abusive organizer who sits on a board of directors, than from an organizer who is the end-all be-all pillar of the local scene. (This may only work in scenes with a large enough population to support it, but we can also explore small-scale ways to distribute power more evenly.)
Taking away power from those who abuse it is a necessary compliment to Safer Spaces policies. Community education, promoting affirmative consent culture, and empowering people to say “no” are all fabulous ideas, proven to bring significant results. But alone, these policies are not enough to prevent individuals from abusing power. No matter the exact nuts-and-bolts way we go about addressing sexual violence, part of it must be recognizing our tendency to trust people with power over those without, and repossessing power from those who abuse it.
Because if we do not take away the power from those who abuse it, they will continue to abuse it. And no code of conduct is ever going to change that.
This post would not be nearly as coherent without the significant editing contributions of Monica Schumacher, Rosalind Diaz, and Bridie Flynn.